My wife and I have been wanting to do the Katy Trail for several years. We began seriously talking about it in 2020, but then Covid hit and some flooding really damaged sections of the trail. We then shot for 2021, but I also really wanted to do the trip on E-bikes, knowing we’d have a lot more fun, cover more ground and would have more freedom to explore the towns along the way. After about 6 months of trying, I finally found my wife an E-bike that would work, however, I just couldn’t get one. Well, every time we’d get in the bike I wanted, the demand for it was so high, I just let someone else have it. Plus, we couldn’t even get racks, bags, tubes or many other accessories necessary for the trip. I got an inexpensive road bike for much of my 2021 riding, and that could have worked here, but I decided to wait on this trip until I had an E-bike. Trying to do the trip without all the necessary gear seemed an uphill battle. So we went to western South Dakota instead (Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, The Black Hills, Devils’s Tower, the Badlands) which I highly recommend! I did finally get my E-bike last fall, after about a year of trying. Bike availability is infinitely better than in 2021, but still a mess compared to before Covid.
History of the trail.
If you’re not familiar with the Katy Trail, it’s about a 240 mile trail, topped with a very fine gravel, that runs from Clinton in the west to St. Louis, that was previously an old railroad. It runs from small town to even smaller communities, through Jefferson City, close to Columbia, and then on to Clinton. What’s the history of the trail, etc. - There’s plenty of that on the internet. Here’s a site with a short history here. https://www.traillink.com/trail-history/katy-trail-state-park/ Along the way there are countless markers and monuments in the towns and communities that dot the trail. Well, and really the towns themselves are monuments to the history, as many really take you back in time. I didn’t read every plaque and monument like I wanted, but I did read a lot of them. These really tell the history of all the towns along the way, going back a couple hundred years. I’m a history geek, so I would have liked to have spent more time in every town, but I realize that my family has always been annoyed with me for being able to watch the History Channel or American Pickers for hours on end, so I know when to balance it out. In it all, the history was my favorite part of the trip.
Planning for the trip.
I wouldn’t exactly recommend how we went about planning our trip. About 10 days before we left, Cara informed me she could take a Friday – Tuesday off, and could we go somewhere. The timing for me at work could have been worse, but not substantially. I looked at the schedule at work and it really didn’t look like a good time to leave. But then I’ve maybe had 6-7 days I haven’t worked since Covid started, so I knew I needed to take some time off. I always feel guilty for not working when people are depending on me, especially during a time when so much has gone wrong. Though, I know working 7 days a week for a couple+ years isn’t super healthy, so I said let’s go. We talked about where we would go for a few days, and finally decided on the Katy Trail, maybe a week before we actually left. I asked a friend (thanks Jonathan) what parts of the trail he thought were the best, which was really helpful.
I won’t give all the details of exactly how we got from point A to point B on our Katy Trail trip, as I think everyone getting to plan their own trip is a big part of the adventure. Plus, there are plenty of better resources than what I can provide. I’ve just been on part of the trail once. I’m not even sure the best times of the year to go, though the week we went was great for us (August 19 – 22). I’ve seen people go all times of year who had a great experience, though I’d say the least likely time I’d go would be anytime it’s over 95 degrees. I wouldn’t even mind going in the winter. For us, the weather was pleasant. We made “mistakes” along the way, and I always want others to have the experience of making their own mistakes. Without those, it’s just a trip. It’s the things that go wrong that make it a good adventure.
We figured we had 4 days we could potentially ride. Now, the trail is about 240 miles, and we also would be biking to and from our accommodations each day. So, we had to decide if we wanted to bike 65-ish miles 4 days in a row. I’m not really a “cyclist”, and don’t have a need to complete an entire trail like this, just to say I did. Also, we really wanted to stop and visit towns along the way. Like my friend Ferris Bueller, I like to look around and see things people don't normally see. I really enjoy cycling, it’s a fun way to exercise and lets me explore in a way I can’t by car or on foot. But I don’t just love being on my bike for hours, day after day. I’m more about exploring and seeing cool things along the way. Plus, due to work, I had only been on the bike once the two weeks prior to the ride. So we decided we wanted to ride 3 days, with one day off, and cover about 150 total miles. We figured that way, we’d be on the bikes around 4 hours a day, which seems plenty. For me, it’s more about the journey along the way, not reaching the final point to say I did it. I think the great philosopher Stephen Tyler said “life’s a journey, not a destination” (Okay, maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson said it first, but Aerosmith put it to music).
There’s a Katy Trail Trip planning website that is a huge help for this trip! In fact, I wouldn’t plan a trip on the trail without it, as it’s an amazing resource. You can plug in which town you want to leave from, finish, and what services are required (hotels, food, camping, water, train station, etc.) along the way and this site will let you know. You can even plug in how fast you think you’ll ride on average, to help you plan. https://bikekatytrail.com/planner.aspx. If you’re going to plan a Katy Trail adventure, this site is a must. Though I guess if you want to be like Lewis & Clark, who travelled along much of this same route, you could just go with no planning and see how it works out (I’m actually not opposed to such a trip, and just seeing what happens, but Cara wouldn’t really go for that). You can camp along the way as well, but obviously need to find out where it’s allowed. This was our annual vacation, and we’ve camped on the ground plenty, especially when the kids were little. After riding/exploring all day, we definitely opted to sleep in an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed. Plus, I was working each morning and evening, and having wifi was essential each day.
We got on the website I mentioned above, and actually booked the trip and logistics in a couple hours. Big mistake there – while the train back was only 20% booked, turns out the slots for bikes were 100% booked! We missed that little detail – definitely check to make sure there are bike tickets available. We’d planned on going from Sedalia to Hermann (about 130 miles of riding, plus riding around town, etc. so we planned for 150 miles of riding in 3 days, with one day off). So – book the train first, along with your bike tickets! We’d booked all our lodging as well! Sedalia is only about a 3.5 hour drive from NWA and the Katy Trail elevation decreases from west to east, plus the wind blows from west to east. For those reasons, most in our area ride from west to east, riding the train back. Once we discovered our error, we reverse engineered our trip, changed our hotels/air bnb’s, and everyone had confirmed the changes by the next evening. It wasn’t the trip we’d planned on, as we wanted to end our stay with a day in Hermann, which is a really cool town, and the drive to Sedalia is shorter.
Below is the link to Amtrak, where you can view the schedule, the rules for bikes and book your trip. Now, neither of us had actually ever ridden on a passenger train, so we did check out the rules and even called when booking our tickets. Among the rules are that tires can’t be over 2” (to fit in racks), or bikes over 50 lbs (though I’ll tell you asking them over the phone, you’ll get as many different answers on the rules as the people you talk to). Everyone was great, but it does appear they have different rules and setups for bikes in different areas. Having read all the rules, at the end of our ride, we put the E-bike batteries in my pack, I let some air out of my 2.25 wide tires. Turns out, at least on our trip, none of that mattered, as there were no racks. The guys on the train at Sedalia helped us get our bikes loaded, we put them in a space in the back of the car, and within probably 90 seconds, we were on the train and it was moving.
Gear – what to take, how to pack, how did it perform?
Again, I said we waited for the trip once we both had E-bikes. Why? I’m an okay rider, having ridden a lot of miles on mountain, road and gravel bikes. With my 20-ish lbs of gear I was carrying (including laptop, etc. for work – so 20 is more than most would carry) I could have averaged 11 MPH on the trail on a standard gravel or hybrid bike. For reference, if I’m going on a 50 mile road ride on a standard road bike by myself, I’ll probably average 15-16 MPH. On the trail itself, we were pretty much always going 14-16 MPH, stopping a lot along the way. On the hills (none are steep. On a regular bike, I’ve had been a lot more tired and sore each day, wouldn’t have explored the towns along the way as much, and would have had less fun. We initially got Cara an E-bike so we could ride together more, and at the same pace! We see this all the time – people getting an E-bike to be an equalizer for them and the people they like to ride with. But then once she got hers, I couldn’t keep up with her either on speed or distance. In it all, we’ve ridden a lot more this year with E-bikes, than we ever did without them, and have gotten in much better shape.
People ask what type of bike is needed for this trip. I’d say anything slightly more rugged than a road bike to a mountain bike, will handle it. While most of it is a very fine gravel (I’d say it slows me down about 2 MPH compared to riding on pavement and is much softer), there are hundreds of gravel road and driveway crossings, where you are crossing plain ole gravel, and there are also ruts and imperfections in the trail. I’d say if a road bike could handle about 32mm wide tires with a bit of tread – you’ve got a bike that will do it. We did see a number of road bikes with wider tires riding on the trail, though they were normally locals just doing sections of the trail that were smoother (we also passed a lot of them going up hills!). The skinnier the tire, the faster you will be, the wider, the more comfortable / able to go over the rough sections. Also, skinnier tires will be more subject to flats. My preference would be anything at least 1.5” inches wide or 38mm is ideal for the trail. Cara’s bike had 1.75” tires, mine 2.25”. I’d also recommend getting a tire with a bit of tread, you’ll have more fun and fewer flats (we had none). I’d say sitting in more of an upright position than a typical road bike is going to make for a much more comfortable ride. So basically, gravel bikes, hybrid bikes, gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes and mountain bikes – these will all be suitable for the Katy Trail.
Again, we opted for E-bikes. We could have used regular ones, but with all the gear we’re carrying and desire to use them to explore the various towns we were staying in – why? The E-bikes give us another 3-4 mph advantage over regular bikes, and make us less tired at the end. On the few climbs we experienced Plus, since we were riding from East to West, we were both riding into the wind most of the way and uphill (albeit very gradual) almost the entire way. Had we done 50 miles this day on regular bikes, both my wife and myself would have been angry at me, and we’d have been on the bikes another 60-90 minutes each day, leaving less time to explore and see the sights along the way.
Cara was riding a Gazelle Arroyo C7 E-bike that she’s had for a month. It puts the rider in a very upright position, and has a stem/handlebar that’s adjustable with the flip of a button to a more or less aggressive riding position. It comes with a chain guard (keeps it clean and grease off the rider) an internal hub (minimal maintenance), built in rack, fenders, bell and headlights. It also has a shock on the fork, and shock on the seat post, for added comfort. It’s a mid drive, Bosch powered bike, giving the rider a very natural feel. It’s got about 50 Nm of torque, which is adequate for getting up and down the hills of NWA, and certainly the Katy Trail. The bikes are made in the Netherlands, where people ride bikes every day. She rode the 50 miles anywhere from the low to medium setting, and used up about 70% - 80% of her battery life for the day. She carried her small items in a small handlebar bag from Banjo Brothers, and a bigger bag on the back, also from Banjo Brothers. That bag has expandable panniers on the sides, which we definitely needed.
I was riding a Kona El Kahuna Mountain-E bike. I’d been trying during the pandemic to get an E-bike from Giant or Kona, anything I could get. After almost a year of waiting, I finally got the Kona. I opted for a mountain bike, as the year prior, I had a full suspension mountain bike and a gravel bike. Most years I had a road bike and a mountain bike. I love exploring the gravel roads in our area, but a gravel bike just beat me up – way too much jarring for me. So I decided to go all year riding one bike. It will handle paved trails, gravel/dirt roads and mountain bike trails all equally well. In fact, I often ride all three types of surfaces in the same ride, which is why I got a mountain bike – it will do all surfaces equally well. So it was perfect for this ride. Well, almost perfect. I wanted to add some ergo handlegrips, which would have made my ride more pleasant, but they’ve been out of stock for most of the year. Get yourself some ergo grips for the trip – you’ll thank me. I outfitted it with a Banjo Brothers bag on the front, in which I carry all my tools, inflators and pump, tubes and other items for repairing a bike (fortunately, I never needed the). I included a multi tool with a chain tool, in case a chain broke, which would be a really bad day on the trail. You are out in the sticks, much of the time. Fortunately, we didn’t need to use it. I added a Topeak Explorer Rack for the rear and a Topeak MTX bag for the rack. All these items came in the night before the trip, and I got them hastily assembled. One downside of a rack on a mountain bike, is they often don’t have the braze ons behind the seat (screw in attachments) to accommodate a rack, or they’re in a weird place, making you bend the rack supports to work. Instead of bending the rack supports, I bought a 2” clamp at Lowes (seen in the pictures) to attach it to my seat post. I’d say I used my e-bike on low most of the time, while Cara stayed on low most of the time, sometimes going up to medium. That gave us plenty of miles left each day.
We also ride with a front and rear light and carry spares in my bag, though we only used them when we were in town. Had I had a bit more time, I’d have added a stem to raise the handlebars up a bit for this ride, and probably a more comfortable seat. Using the standard mountain bike seat my bike came equipped with was my biggest mistake. It’s fine for the biking I do in NWA, but when you’re talking about multiple 50 mile days, I’d prefer more padding. Cara’s bike has an integrated lock, but I also brought/used a cable lock. That came in handy on a few of our stops.
We packed quite light. A couple changes of riding and street clothes, the bare essentials, and that’s it. We washed clothes every couple of days, as you do not want to carry any more than is absolutely necessary. I believe there is some type of courier service that will carry your gear from town to town if you want, but we didn’t need it. There are even guide services, that will take you on the trip, including gear support/repair. Again, I don’t know much about them, but know a few who have used them.
Once we got the trip booked, I was excited to install the new bike rack I’d been waiting on for months. It came in a couple days before the trip, I put it together, only to discover one key piece was missing! I emailed the company, they were sending me the part right away, but it would arrive until after our trip. Turns out a couple weeks later, it still hasn’t arrived, but that’s frankly been life in a bike shop for over two years, and I’ll just wait it out (often, bikes and parts have taken a year to get to us). That did leave us in a bit of a pickle, as Cara’s bike rack had just been damaged a few days prior to the trip when the basketball goal hit it in the driveway (I won’t say who did that). I borrowed a rack the day before we left, and we got going.
We’d planned on riding from Sedalia to Hermann, staying an extra day at the end in Hermann, which is a really cool, historic old town built in the 1800’s. But again, our rookie planning messed that up. So we reversed the trip. We were both actually thankful we did that, as the result was that we were going to ride one day, spend a day in Jefferson City, then ride the next two days. I’d not really been on a bike in two weeks due to work, and having that second day off to get used to long rides again was a blessing.
Day 1 We got to Hermann, Missouri on Thursday night and stayed at the Hermann Crown Suites. This is such a cool old hotel, built sometime in the late 1800’s. We spent Thursday evening and Friday morning walking around the town. We really needed a full day there, as unlike any place I’ve been in our area, this town really takes you back in time (well, minus the cars and indoor plumbing). They’ve done a great job of restoring the old houses and buildings, giving the feel of the late 1800’s (again, with the cars on the streets). I’d definitely recommend a stay there.
We got going around 1PM to start the 50 mile trek to Jefferson City. From what we could tell, it appears a lot of people ride the train in from the St. Louis area, to hang out in Hermann for the day/weekend. It’s a really cool old town, with a lot of history. There also appeared to be a number of vineyards/wineries in the area. We parked our car at the Amtrak station, as when we get back we’ll be able to throw our gear in the car and head home. The lady at the visitors center / station was really friendly and eager to help – they hired the right person there. She reminded me of the school office lady in Ferris Bueller, and while in her 60’s (maybe 70’s), had a sweet convertible Camaro. We rode up to the McKissick Trailhead, about 2.5 mile ride on the side of the highway to the trailhead. A few people stopped us right as we were beginning our journey to ask about our E-bikes. After chatting 15 minutes, they asked how our Katy Trail ride was going and we said – we’re about 10 feet from starting it. Cara questioned my judgment on which direction was East-West, and though I was right, I did make a multiple incorrect navigational errors later in the trip. I’ll admit, with our E-bikes, maps, cell phones, hotels and indoor plumbing, we were basically like Lewis & Clark, navigating the unknown, along much of their original route.
About 16 miles from Hermann, we stopped in the “town” of Portland and ate at Holzhauser’s Bar & Grill, founded in 1933. The food was great, the lady there welcoming and cool seeing all the pictures of it dating back to the 30’s I will say, people have definitely been smoking there every day since 1933, so there was no lack of lingering cigarette smell! Still, we had the next 35 miles to air out. The ride was fairly uneventful, but scenic (okay, not like the Rocky Mountains scenic, but it has it’s own charm). Riding through farms, along the river, bluffs and the occasional remnants of a town that didn’t make it. I definitely would have stopped and explored some of those towns more, but with the late start and 50 miles of riding that day, we needed to get to Jefferson City, where we wrapped up the day. I’ll admit to making a couple navigational errors here that added a bit of distance, but we finally made it through the Jefferson City Trailhead, found the spur to town. So if you’re riding the trail and hit the Jefferson City Trailhead – that’s where you get on the spur trail to town. Just follow the trail, and when it ends, the pictures of bikes on the road, and head toward the giant bridge. Those little stops/trailheads (seen in the pictures) dotted the trail every 15 – 20 miles or so, for access to the trail. Riding into town was pretty cool as we crossed the Missouri River bridge and saw the Capitol building, We pulled into the Baymont by Wyndham (I spare no expense – always a 2 to 2.5 star hotel for me, and always one with the free breakfast). It was really nice, affordable and the staff great. It’s also right across from the Capitol building. We ordered a pizza and wrapped up Day 1. Along the entire way, there are stops at every old town and community that look like the old train stops of the day. These have the history of each town and I definitely read every one of these! Some fascinating history there. I’d say there are very few services from the Hermann to Jefferson City route. I’m not sure the restaurant we stopped at wasn’t the only one along the way. We each used about 60% of our battery capacity that day. Which is good, as my bike is rated for about 65 miles of pedal assist on low, and Cara’s about 60. So the bikes performed better than the official ratings. Along the way of the entire trail, you’ll encounter many dozens of gates / road crossings. These allow for bikes but not cars, to get onto the trail, and also warn you that you’re about to cross a road. Along the way, we only had to stop at a few of them for a passing car.
Day 2. We spent the day in Jefferson City, the state capital. We stayed in the Baymont by Wyndham, just down the street from the capital. It was newly remodeled, very affordable, clean and the staff was great. That day we toured the capital area, river, downtown and the Missouri State Penitentiary. It’s an interesting capital, with a population of about 43,000, making it the 15th most populated city in Missouri, and the tenth smallest of all state capitals. While I never found anything on it, I wondered if maybe the fact that one of the oldest, biggest maximum security prisons was located there for 150-ish years, in the middle of town and a half mile from the capital, was a limiting factor in it’s growth. I highly recommend the tour of the prison, if you like history. You can read about it, book tours, here. I kind of wanted to do one of the nightly ghost tours, but I wanted to sleep more. https://www.missouripentours.com. We got to see and hear about a lot of interesting stuff on the tour. Even got to see Sonny Liston’s cell and learn that the future champ learned to box while he was in prison. Now, I will say our tour guide was a bit on the quirky side, which made it more entertaining. The downtown is another cool old downtown. It was very interesting to visit a state capital with all the downtown buildings from the 1800’s still standing, and very few tall buildings. Really takes you back in time. For our evening meal, we ate at the Ecco Lounge, which is reported to be the oldest operating restaurant in town, dating back sometime to the 1800’s (you can read about it on their menu). We opted to walk everywhere that day, instead of using the bikes. I think we put in about 8 miles of walking that day.
Day 3 / Day 2 of biking.
We went from Jefferson City to New Franklin, and this was my favorite day of riding by far. It's ironically also the area I took the least amount of pictures. If you’re going to start early and take stops along the way, this is the day to do it. So much to see and so many cool towns along the way. You’ve got the river, cool bluff lines, hiking trails (we did the one at Rocheport) and caves. Now, a lot of people on this route go from to Boonville, which is a bigger, historic town with a casino on the river. But all the lodging I found there was $200 or more a night, so we stayed in the much smaller town of New Franklin (Old Franklin was destroyed by a flood in the 1800’s, so they moved the town up on the hill). We stayed in the “Boonslick Guesthouse North” operated by Hazel on AirBnb, for about $80 that night. It’s a really charming older home, built in the 1920’s, and will sleep about 8 (though with one restroom). She even had chicken pot pies for us for dinner! Now, that wasn’t really enough calories for us, so we walked over to the Casey’s convenience store (it appears to be such the center of town that it’s where they decided to put the sign indicating it’s the hometown of country music star Sara Evans). So we wrapped up dinner on main street with some Casey’s pizza. Along the way, we spent some time riding around the towns of Hartsburg and Rocheport, looking at the old houses and buildings. I’d definitely recommend this. These towns are seeing a great deal of life, due to tourists along the Katy Trail, and they’ve done a great job bringing the towns back to life. There are places to eat in both towns, including a small bike shop in Rocheport (Meriwether Café and Bike Shop). I believe there was like 500 feet of climbing over the 50 miles, so not much. This was on Sunday and we stopped at Coopers Landing, a campground and restaurant for lunch, and got to listen to live music as well. https://cooperslandingmo.com. This was a great place to stop. I again used about 60% of my battery and Cara about 70%.
Day 3 of BikingOnce you leave Boonville, you immediately start climbing and leave the river valley area. It was about 42 miles from here to Sedalia. It wasn’t bad, and most of it is covered by trees, but it’s not at all the most scenic part, nor is there much to do along the way. I think we climbed about 1,200 feet of elevation that day. While not much to see, there was the coolest old grain elevator along the way (what area – I don’t remember, but you can’t miss it). For lunch we stopped in the town of Pilot Grove and I believe we ate at Katarina’s Café (possibly the only place there to eat). Nearly half the customers there that day were riding through on bikes, and we all chatted about our trips. Their population says 666 on the Wikipedia page – If I were them, I’d have someone edit it down to 665 or up to 667. We talked to a few of the locals, including one old gentleman (he said he was 92, almost 93) who gave us his personal and town history. I have no idea his name, as he couldn’t hear any of the questions we asked him, which made him more than willing just to talk! With about 10 miles to go, we both upped our pedal assist to medium/high and cruised down the trail about 18MPH, as frankly, the riding was getting a bit boring on this stretch. This stretch was only 42 miles, and wanted to get in 50, so we rode past town, came back, then rode around town a few miles. We ended up in Sedalia and stayed at the Bothwell Hotel. This was a cool old hotel, built 95 years ago, that’s been really well restored. It was only like $80 for the night, and there were many cyclists staying through. They’ll let you keep your bikes in the lobby, ballroom – wherever they can put them. The staff there was great, and took our bikes / us up on a 95 year old elevator! I think the most interesting part of this town is that it was one of the biggest towns in Missouri 100 years ago, hitting over 20,000 in 1920. It’s also stayed around that population the last 100 years. Now, I’m from Springdale, which had a population of about 2,000, 100 years ago, and now is over 80,000. So downtown Sedalia was much bigger than any of the downtowns in NWA, and had a lot of cool older buildings, including churches and the library, built in the late 1800’s / early 1900’s. The library was built in 1900 with a Carnegie gift, and it appears there was a competition in the 1800’s to see who could build the nicest church.
That next morning, we loaded up our gear, rode the .32 mile to the Amtrak station. Got to visit with an older couple from Pennsylvania that was traveling the country by train. They even told us about their 21 kids, ranging from 15 to 55 years in age, most of them with special needs. I wish I could remember their names. They said they moved from Chicago to rural Pennsylvania years ago, to raise their kids in a quieter area.
We hopped on the train, the staff loaded us up quite quickly and we took the 2 hour ride back to Hermann. It appears there are two trains daily, that run both from east to west and west to east. We ate in Hermann and drove back.
So would I recommend the trip – absolutely! I’ve heard the area from Hermann to St. Charles (St. Louis) area is the prettiest, so someday I’d like to ride that section. Will riding the Katy Trail be something I do again soon? Not likely – I think I’ll wait a number of years. There are so many trips and adventures on my list to do for the first time. I think over the years, we maybe one time took the kids back to the same vacation spot we’d done before. We always preferred to try a new place and new adventure every year, and as empty nesters, I don’t expect to change that. I for sure want to travel overseas, as at 53, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to leave the country, though I have been to Oklahoma a number of times over the years. I’d highly recommend the trip for anyone looking for a cycling adventure. If you’re going for pure scenery, you’ll be a bit disappointed, as I’ve been many areas more scenic. But everything has it’s own beauty. If you like exploring and history, you’ll have a better time than if you just stay on the trail and ride.
I know I’ve left out some details, but this seems plenty of words to communicate our adventure.